Dan LeBatard on Jay Mariotti: "The vitriolic reaction to Mariotti's misery frightened me."


The facts aren’t in. The feeding frenzy has created an un-American guilty until proven innocent. Shame and misery are being enjoyed in a way that is a little disturbing and a lot uncomfortable.

But what is happening to sports-media star Jay Mariotti somehow feels just.

Not just just. It is also scary, overzealous and poisonous. But it seems fair if we are grading on the curve that he, a multi-media star, and we, the mainstream media, have conspired to create for profit, entertainment and enjoyment. Or, at the very least, it feels consistent — our unfairness giving birth to another that is equal in size and weight and bloodlust.

We, the sports media, are now covered in the same judgmental and knee-jerk way we too often cover famous sports stars who step in it. And it is Twitter and blogs – the fan’s voice, in other words – who have forced that justice upon us because the media doesn’t police itself with quite the same zeal with which we police others in sports. The arena we cover is the ultimate meritocracy, but what has befallen Mariotti feels a lot like democracy at work, even as it stings and it sucks.

Doesn’t feel so good to be judged with the same scorching spotlight with which we judge athletes, does it? I wouldn’t like people celebrating/rejoicing something that brings harm and shame to me, my career and my family. But the marketplace always wins, and the marketplace wishes to gossip about this cruel and dirty stuff. And because we in the sportstainment empire spend so much time trafficking in disgrace, making sport of others being the newest sport, we can’t be too surprised or hurt when the baby we birthed grows up into an unruly and unholy Frankenstein monster who kicks our ass publicly, too. We invented this beast, fed this beast, nurtured this beast, profited off this beast – and now we’re going to notice that the beast’s fangs are too sharp only when it bites us back?

The media has always loved irony and hypocrisy. It is why preachers and politicians and policemen stumbling gets more breathless coverage than, say, grocery clerks. You can make money off morality, but this is what comes with that transaction – increased interest. Like athletes, columnists today enjoy fame and profit amplified by TV and all digital media. So of course the bad stuff is going to be amplified, too. If I fuck up, I have to expect chunks of sky to fall on my head, but the vitriolic reaction to Mariotti’s misery nonetheless frightened me.

Mariotti represents a voice and face of the sports media for a lot of people who consume sports. He’s a cartoon caricature, of course, no more representative of the entire industry than Terrell Owens is representative of his. Most sports journalists aren’t him. But he’ll do as a symbol today – loud, judgmental and wagging a parental, castigating and for-profit finger at the behavior of all those beneath him. When that guy falls off the soapbox, it is going to get noticed and celebrated, even if all the facts around his falling aren’t in yet. And it isn’t unreasonable for fans and athletes to say that ESPN should cover its own with the same hyperventilation and hostility it does all the fallen sports stars who made guys like me relevant in the first place.

Should we wait for more details? Of course. But we so rarely do in sports-hate radio and knee-jerk news reaction today, and it why and how we’ve created things like the totally unreasonable steroid climate. Imagine if you were an athlete today who honestly, genuinely, legitimately false-positived a steroid test, and you were trying to climb out of all the crap surrounding that. Nobody would believe you. Nobody. Mariotti can’t beg and plead for fairness and due process and compassion, and expect to get it, when he is so often reluctant to extend it himself.

Andre Agassi, after a lot of therapy, gave one of the most poignant answers I’ve ever gotten to an interview question, and he gave it instantaneously. The trait you most value in others? Empathy, he said. But it is hard to demand it from others if I’m not vigilant about extending it myself.

I don’t know Mariotti beyond a few cordial meetings. I have no earthly idea if he’s capable of violence against a woman. Nor do I know if there is nuance and perspective that can be added to his incident that would make it more understandable or sympathetic. But I do know that he’s getting sliced up now by the same knife that he has made a profitable career out of wielding.

And I can’t remember, in two decades covering sports, an arrest creating as much glee among sports fans as this one. Unattached, I found it hypnotizing and frightening, seeing so many people enjoy someone else possibly get ruined. But I get it. A lot of people hate the media, an easy punching bag. A lot of people hate that Mariotti himself profits so much from judging others. But I’ll never understand, not for as long as I live, enjoying someone else’s suffering.

It is one of the chief complaints I have with sports coverage – jealousy of athletes and their money and their life and their women excluding them from fundamental and decent compassion we might extend to others who aren’t rich and famous. These are supposed to be fun and games, you know? To me, moralizing about the behavior of athletes is like complaining about the away-from-the-circus antics of the clowns. I was happy to hear that crazy-ass Ozzie Guillen, who hates Mariotti with the fire of a thousand suns, understood we-all-make-mistakes enough to rise above this nonsense and reserve instantaneous judgment.

Will Mariotti lose his job and career? I hope not. We don’t have enough details to know how bad this was. I just know he hasn’t built enough goodwill and value as, say, a Michael Wilbon. It helps, in all walks of life, to simply be nice and be liked – things the media isn’t nearly often enough. Mariotti, as evidenced by the avalanche of fan and media and athlete hatred falling avalanche-like upon his head now, didn’t accrue much of that in climbing atop the sportstainment empire.

Besides, this is the popular-perceptions business. When the perception of the columnist sags, so too does the motivation to employ the columnist. Fair or not, it’s the nature of the business. And this, as was once said in a movie of some note, is the business we have chosen. I can’t sling some sewage for profit in a newspaper, on the radio and on TV, and then whine too much when some of the subsequent stink stains me.

Unless this is a giant misunderstanding, or unless he somehow earns forgiveness, it will be quite difficult going forward to buy Mariotti passing judgment on the questionable judgment of others. And so I wonder who will pay him for it. But we should all be for due process. And, if this is all a fuzzy misunderstanding, it’s only fair to reconsider any hasty judgments.

I’m just never a fan of public shame. In fact, I fear it. I wouldn’t like anyone reveling in my public disgrace.

But, in today’s climate, given the business I’ve chosen, how could I not understand?